With Development Camp complete, the Nashville Predators prospects can go about the business of training and preparing for the upcoming hockey season, and for a few, that means getting ready for an intense competition for an NHL roster spot this fall.
On defense, most of the lineup is set, but there is always opportunity for a young defensman to earn part-time work due to injury or the occasional scratch of one of the regulars. The question is, which one will earn that "7th defenseman" job?
Assuming that restricted free agents Ryan Parent & Cody Franson get signed to new deals this summer and take the 3rd pairing, the Top Six so far looks like this:
Ryan Suter - Shea Weber
Francis Bouillon - Kevin Klein
Ryan Parent - Cody Franson
This leaves one more spot on the active roster, with a variety of candidates who each bring their own positives and negatives to the table. Let's review...
Nashville's 2007 1st-round pick has moved along seamlessly from the WHL to the AHL, so is a debut in Nashville just a matter of natural progression?
Why he's the guy: He enjoyed a very solid rookie campaign at the AHL level in Milwaukee last season, with 11 goals and 30 assists in 80 games (not 40 as I originally wrote, thanks @cellblock303!), along with a +17 rating that was 2nd best on the team and tops among blueliners.
Why he's not: He's still working to fill out his physical frame, and the question remains as to whether he can retain NHL-level mobility while having added almost 40 pounds.
The undersized 1st-round draft pick from 2009 is still trying to bulk up, but this blueline dynamo for the Windsor Spitfires doesn't have much left to prove at the junior hockey level - he's coming off consecutive Memorial Cup Championships, and is expected to play a big role once again on Canada's entry at the 2011 World Junior Championships.
Why he's the guy: His unique talents could provide a boost to the constant Achilles' Heel of this team, the power play. Almost every scouting report on Ellis indicates that he could successfully run an NHL PP unit right now.
Why he's not: Due to the operating agreement between junior hockey and the professional ranks, Ellis must play either in Nashville or Windsor next season, Milwaukee is not an option. Since his initial 3-year contract doesn't actually start until he's playing pro, it doesn't make sense for him to play for the Predators this season unless they think he'll make a major impact, and warrants a roster spot for the entire 82-game campaign over anyone else on this list.
Josi is finally coming over to North America this fall, and represents a true wild card for Predators fans who haven't seen much of him in action.
Why he's the guy: He's made a name for himself playing against grown men in the top Swiss league, not just other teenagers. He's also played well at the World Championships, with a goal and two assists in seven games, and would have played in the Olympics if not for a broken finger. He is billed as the most complete player to come out of Switzerland, and may well have the skill set to play at the NHL level right now.
Why he's not: The speed and skill are one matter, but the physical play is entirely different on this side of the Atlantic. Coupled with the fact that Josi needs to adjust to the smaller NHL-size rink, perhaps it makes the most sense for him to start off in Milwaukee.
Laakso surprised fans by making the opening roster last season, but only lasted 7 games before spending the rest of the year with Milwaukee.
Why he's the guy: He's got the size (6'1", 209 lbs.), and down in Milwaukee acquitted himself well in more of a stay-at-home role (4 goals, 9 assists and +12 in 46 games with 42 PIM).
Why he's not: Blum has presumably skyrocketed past him on the depth chart in Milwaukee, and Sulzer can already do most of what Laakso does while also contributing more offensively.
Sulzer would probably be considered the incumbent here, having played 20 games last season in his first extended NHL tour of duty.
Why he's the guy: In those 20 games, he contributed two assists and a +4 rating in limited ice time, and in 36 games for Milwaukee, added 7 goals, 23 assists, and a +13 rating. In other words, he's producing solid results, and not weighing his team down with penalties, either (just 4 PIM in Nashville and 8 in Milwaukee). He's also gained exposure to top-level competition representing Germany both in the Olympics and the World Championships. On top of his production, if I read things right he's also waiver-eligible this season, so a demotion to Milwaukee could result in another NHL team swiping him for free.
Why he's not: His positive results can be qualified by the fact that he generally faced the weakest opposition, and enjoyed the highest-caliber teammates on the ice with him among the Nashville D. His upside at the NHL level is also perhaps the most limited of the four candidates here. He may serve as a steady presence, but isn't projected as a rising star.